Let’s talk a bit about Asa Butterfield. He is our Ender after all; for Ender’s Game to work as a film, we need to believe this kid is the perfect Venn Diagram of Bobby Fischer and General Patton.
Framed in the moppetiest of all moppet haircuts, Butterfield made quite a good impression in Hugo in spite of that film’s true interest lying in its digital playground aspects, and in spite of the fact that the taller, more mature, more assured Chloe Grace Moretz could then and still can act circles around the kid.
Two years later, Butterfield as Ender Wiggin needs to look just as young, maybe younger, and so gone is that shaggy picture frame of brown hair (which would make him look like an aspiring Disney Channel star now), a short G.I. Jane buzzcut taking it’s place. This new hairdo does strange and alarming things to the teenager’s face and overall onscreen image – an effect I’m sure the filmmakers loved since it means the sixteen-year-old can easily still play a pre-teen untouched by puberty, but one which unsettled me.
In Ender’s world, kids grow up way too fast, playing violent video games all the live-long day (familiar) so they can, owing to the benefits of their malleable brains, immediately step into commanding roles in the intergalactic armed forces (less so). What this creates is a need for us to see Ender and his juvenile brethren both as Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) sees them – as the most brilliant strategic minds in the world, geniuses and leaders in teensy bodies; and as Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis, underused) sees them – as impetuous tykes who could be severely damaged by the psychological ramifications of being used and abused for their brilliance so early in their lives.
That is quite an ask, finding that perfect balance so many times, allowing this film to have a fully fleshed-out cast of believable kid cadets. As it is, only Moises Arias, as Ender’s rival (perhaps romantic rival, but the film seems more than reluctant to go there, which is an odd sacrifice to make in a film in which a mutual attraction is clear and in which the aging-up of the cast from the book means some sparks should fly considering 80% of the cast is in the throes of puberty, right?) manages to find that perfect balance of carrying himself both as a fifteen-year-old brat might and also as a grizzled veteran of years and years of training and leadership might. In what, in the grand scheme of things, amounts to a bit part, Arias’s captivating turn is wasted (he literally disappears from the film after an incident that at least seems to warrant a check-in come the film’s denouement) when I in fact believe Arias might have made a pretty brilliant Ender himself.
As for Butterfield’s performance as same, of that I am inherently more skeptical. Butterfield’s brief appearance as a digital avatar in an in-film game (which starts out simple and intriguing and grows baffling the more it turns into the film’s ultimate dues ex machina) drives home how much Butterfield looks like the dead-eyed kids that drew so much criticism in Polar Express. In Zemeckis’s animated wonderland, the weird look of the human characters never bugged me that much, but in Ender’s Game, Butterfield as child genius/ sensitive pre-teen freaks me out whether he’s strategizing, punching and kicking, or crying on his sister’s shoulder. Regardless of circumstance, Butterfield’s eyes are deader than the Polar Express kids’ eyes ever were, which is remarkably unnerving because Butterfield is, in point of fact, a real person! How can this flesh-and blood human break the uncanny valley so egregiously?
And yet there is something uncanny about the way Butterfield has to play Ender; something about the way he has channeled Ender’s overwhelming, inarguable brilliance into a chilly, affectless, occasionally watery-eyed performance pulls me out of believing in the only thing the film never for a second bothers to question – that Ender, as far as war games go, is the absolute bees’ knees. Only once Ender’s ideal mix of violence and compassion is challenged by Colonel Graff (who plays, it must be said, a rather horrid trick in a moral quandary that the film should marinate in for a riveting twenty minutes and dismisses in an insubstantial two) does Ender get to break out of the mold that has been set for him, and even that confrontation is a tease, a promise for more fireworks that never come. Somehow, in spite of the alarming stakes that have just been set, Gavin Hood’s script averts any more conflict, and it does so in the most baffling ways: by making the protagonist take a nap, by letting him escape from base in what appears to be a startling breach of security, and by, in spite of the fascinating conversations that must have led to the promotion, giving the kid the title of admiral and letting him do whatever the hell he wants even if it all means completely overwriting everything that just happened in the film.
Director Gavin Hood builds a nice-enough-looking underdog story around the conceit that Ender, through his utter, world-shattering (literally) awesomeness, can turn a group of misfits into a conquering force, and, even more importantly, a compassionate force, a force for a potential greater good; and it sure is nice to see how diverse the team that assembles around Ender is. You know what would have been nicer, especially considering all the controversy that followed this film to theaters due to original author Orson Scott Card’s controversial politics? Instead of having the normative white kid (born with the right stuff donchaknow?) find the hidden potential in all these undervalued “others,” it would have been cool, subversive, even merited to give one of these kids (or the Latino Arias) the keys to the kingdom. As it is, Butterfield is altogether unconvincing as both a conflicted child and as a brilliant military leader, making him, in a film chock-full of extended CGI zero-G scenes and entire military battles staged as video games, the most uncanny thing on screen.